I stink. With a total combined 16 hours flight and 12 hours transit, my whole body itches, my breath smells like a swamp pit and my hair is as oily as the Mexican gulf back in 2010. It was only 3 months ago when I remembered telling Sook Lin, my team manager, and Oliver, HR, that I was planning to take a 4-month sabbatical, sending their faces into a contorted expressions as I piled on unnecessary stress into their plates with my ‘selfish desire for adventure’. I bet it would put a cheeky smile on their faces knowing that somehow, the forces of nature, or rather poor flight arrangements, made my first step into Hawaii a temporary travesty.

Fortunately for me, the generally “chilled out” attitude of Hawaiians as depicted in films isn’t just a stereotype. Hawaiians indeed have a nicer outlook on life; attempting to warm up to anyone they come across by tossing the ‘Shaka’ (a hand sign where the 3 middle fingers are enclosed while your thumb and pinky finger remain outstretched), a symbol for the ‘Aloha Spirit’ that represents every other positive expression such as ‘Have a nice day’ and ‘Mahalo (Hawaiian for thank you)’. After settling in to my really beautiful temporary lodgings and satisfying myself with a long warm shower, the awareness of my situation begins to take clarity like clouds clearing after a long rainy day.
I’m in unfamiliar territory, about to go on a course in which I have no clue (cross cultural business, FYI), with no familiar faces within at least a 1000 mile radius, relying only on my own survival instincts (which is nothing much to begin with) and some random people I will meet, for a whole 3 months.

I can only grin with excitement. However, the grin is short lived, as I come to realize the insanely exorbitant prices of Hawaiian groceries.

The first month and a half there could easily be summed up with one word - hectic. I speed through case studies with Wikipedia and dictionary.com as my reference companions, as I attempt to cover as much unfamiliar ground in the field of business. Terms such as ‘tacit knowledge’, ‘ADR’, ‘Autonomy’, ‘Procurement’, ‘ROI’, ‘ROE’, ‘ROA’, ‘Capitalism’, ‘Socialism’, ‘Purchasing Power Parity’, and a whole lot more transitioned from the realms of the unknown to foundational knowledge used in discussions. Cases are discussed, often times leading up to constructive arguments based on different perspectives that stems from the class’s diverse backgrounds. As much as I was intrigued by the new-found knowledge such as game theory economics, Confucius’ view on individuality and community, as well as Socrates’ teachings on pragmatism, I was even more fascinated by my new environment and what it has to offer. Weekends were filled with activities such as visits to Pearl Harbor and surfing classes. It was exhausting, yet 2-fold more gratifying.

While the rest of my almost 2-month stay consisted of less classes and activities, it was the most profound. My initial hopes of having some time off for self reflection came as classes take a back seat with the more relaxed schedule later in the course. Furthermore, my bank account was thinning at an alarming rate and I had to re-consider the benefits of throwing more cash into supporting the American economy versus my chance of surviving on a diet of instant noodles for the rest of my stay.

Jokes aside, I was beginning to wonder what made this trip worthwhile, what was it that justified my putting my career on hold for 4 months to travel half way across the world and what did I gain? Am I happy with where I am? What is my next step and how do I get there? It was a time for reflections and I can honestly say reflections are better made sitting on the beach, enjoying the beautiful view Hawaii has to offer while getting a tan. At this point of time in the course, I had already fostered strong relationships with some of my peers; relationships that I knew would resonate for years to come.

I got to know a Cambodian girl, who did her post graduate studies in public policy at Carnegie Mellon. We would enjoy cheesecake while arguing about our differing philosophical ideals and ethical perspectives. I also enjoyed hearing about her experience working in the non-profit sector for corporations such as the UN and World Bank, how she hates the bureaucracy which clashes with and hinders her passion to help her country grow, and what it was like to be born 4 years after the Khmer Rouge was ousted, growing up in a country that had to restart from scratch.

I also got to know an Indonesian Managing Consultant from A.T Kearney. Towards the end of the course, we rented a car and road tripped across the whole island of Hawaii, stopping by at each scenic beach we came across and enjoying the view while sharing our aspirations of pursuing graduate studies. We talked about getting into Harvard like Boston was in our backyard, and laughed at how ridiculous we sounded. We also agreed that as crazy as it may sound, it was a great direction to run to and see where we end up along the way. We shared our passion, his in Venture Capital and Corporate Strategic implementations, and mine in Technology and Volunteer work. We talked about future careers, how we could open up doors and the possibility of us collaborating with others in the future. He was optimistic while I was realistic, and this created a good contrast or synergy, if you will, for discussions. It was a funny sight, two males, one Oriental and the other Polynesian, sitting by the beach deeply engrossed in our topics. I sometimes wonder if passers-by perceived us as an odd ‘couple’.

One final honorable mention was another peer from the Philippines, who was four years younger than me, the youngest of the lot. A marketing executive from the communications industry, we shared the same interest in volunteer work. We discussed the opportunities in both our countries (or lack thereof in mine) and what were the differing factors that contributed to the current situation. Despite being so young, he was eager to contribute his own perspective and hungry for knowledge and opportunity.

The combined experience we share certainly helped me look at life from a different perspective. I was not only able to reflect from the position I stood, but also from their positions looking at me. It is refreshing when someone tells you that ‘you lack the capacity for compassion and sympathy’, something you simply need to hear without the sugar coating. We openly commented on each other’s aspirations and dreams, spotting loopholes, considering what-if worst case scenarios; things that you wouldn’t want to hear but you simply have to. We gave support from a realistic stance, not blind affirmations.

Before we knew it, our 3 months in Hawaii was up… Next, I went to Japan, and then home. Read about the rest of my trip in part two.